Jack Smart, the philosopher and my old bushwalking mate, believed that time is a dimension like length and breadth. Just as a place continues in existence when you turn your back and leave so does a happening in time continue to exist after you have moved on. The only difference is that you can return to places but not to past times. Jack found this view consoling. It means that our past life continues to exist – and will exist forever – even though no longer present.
If I could move pastward down the dimension of time, I would eventually come to Jack and me near an almost dry creek somewhere in the Brindabellas, about 70 kilometres or so from Canberra. We are camping after a day of bushwalking. It has been dry and the creek is reduced to a few dirty puddles. I imagine the scene as a series of photographic stills running backward because of the direction through time I am travelling. So the water in the billy mysteriously becomes an engorged sock and the sock pours itself backward into a puddle. I reasoned that we could make the water drinkable by filtering it through a clean sock. It worked well enough.
Jack and I were mates because we went bushwalking together. In his working life he was a well known philosopher – an import to Australia from England and one of the materialists who came to dominate the philosophical life of the country – indeed to define what Australian philosophy was. They have all vanished down the temporal stream, these pioneer philosophers.
Jack was a strong and sturdy walker. He did not tread lightly through the bush. He threw himself at the scrub and splashed noisily through streams. He did not care if his boots got wet. Among his friends he was notorious for leading unaware people into epics of bushwalking endurance. He would invite a visiting philosopher to come for a walk in the bush. Perhaps this person pictured a pleasant stroll along a path through gum trees where he might get a glimpse of a kangaroo. Jack would lead him into wild, trackless bush on a walk that was supposed to last for a few hours but often went on hour after hour into the night. For Jack was not a good navigator. I soon learned on our walks that I had to keep track of where we were.
We always began by travelling eastward from Canberra to a narrow bridge over the Murrumbidgee, through farming and grazing country and then into the hills. I drove. Jack had given up driving long ago. Sometimes we travelled through paddocks where mobs of kangaroos grazed and finally into an abandoned commercial pine forest planted by some government agency and then left to rot. From there we took off on foot through bush traversed by wombat tracks to Mount Gudgenby or south to the Sentry Box.
All that country was badly burned in the 1990s. Flying over it after the fires, I saw scorched trees and naked rock where there had once been tree-covered peaks – the skeleton of the country had been exposed by fire But further down the stream of past time, in the days when we walked those mountains, the eucalypts shimmered in the sun giving off their pleasant oily odour and the distant hills were covered with a blue green mantle.
At Jack’s memorial service I talked about the time we lost each other at a fork in the path. I waited for a time and then ran back but Jack had vanished. I called out and there was no answer. Lacking a better idea, I continued upward to a wide open plain where I pitched my tent and made a fire. Jack appeared out of nowhere it seemed. We laughed and then settled down to share a cup of tea as the evening drifted down around us.
Jack had held the professorial chair at Adelaide University but he was driven out by student rebellion. None of these rebels attacked him directly. He simply hated the inconvenience they put him to and their challenge to what he thought was proper behaviour in a university. We argued about this on a few occasions. But it was not an issue that he used to divide the world into friends and foes – unlike some of the professors of his generation. Politics didn’t really interest him. Neither did university affairs. What he really wanted was peace to do philosophy. He found that at La Trobe University where he was happy to take a lesser position in order to remove himself from the front line of university politics. Later he moved on the Australian National University where he stayed until his retirement.
It was perhaps Jack who insisted on the archaic custom that existed when I first joined the staff at La Trobe. At 10:30 in the morning and at 3:30 in the afternoon the academic staff were supposed to gather in the common room where we were served tea or coffee and a biscuit. The idea was to provide a space for a fruitful exchange of ideas – though I don’t remember much philosophy being discussed. Even in those days the custom was quaint and often inconvenient if there were other things that needed to be done. Now there is no philosophy common room and not much time to chat.
Philosophers at La Trobe had an active social life. The University had opened its doors in the 60s, the staff were young and were partial to a good party. Once we hired a juke box so we could celebrate the end of the academic year with a dance. There were parties in the department, parties at people’s homes and if a post-graduate student got their degree, if someone was leaving for a sabbatical or coming back we celebrated with drinks in the chairperson’s room and a lunch at the staff club.
Those celebrations and lunches have also vanished into time past. But there we are at some location in the temporal dimension sitting around on chairs that badly need reupholstering. It is an academic room that you would expect to find in a university building of the 50s or 60s. There is a wall of books, a row of windows framed by dusty, faded curtains, a desk, a grey carpet on the floor. On the top of a filing cabinet is a plaster duck – life size, dusty white. This is our mascot, appropriate because La Trobe has an artificial waterway – a moat – and a resident population of waterfowl. Robert Pargetter who was often the head of department is pouring drinks. Jovial and good at running things without getting on anyone’s nerves, he is telling an amusing story. Robert Young, tall, red haired, a man prickly with principles, says little but seems to be enjoying himself. Alec Hyslop in his plummy accent is adding witty remarks. Later he was in demand as a speaker on formal occasions when someone left the department or retired. John Fox is there, long bearded and wearing a ragged caftan that resembles the outfit of a mendicant monk. Brian Ellis, one of the professors of the department is sitting too close to one of the women post-graduate students. Tim Oakley is making gloomy predications about our future, most of which came true. Some students are present, notably the Canadian Sue Dodds who later got a job in New South Wales and now has an important administrative position. We chat, we laugh, we drink. Later we will go off to lunch at the Staff Club.
There is no such place anymore. The building was turned into a computer workspace for students. There is no philosophy department. We were amalgamated with other departments some years ago. There is no drinking and no lunches. Robert Pargetter is dead and most of the others I rarely see.
My career at La Trobe did not start well. I was going through a period of depression – something that often affected me at that time of my life, perhaps the result of a strange unidentified illness, lasting several years, that made my glands swell and left me tired and dispirited. It did not help that I was put in an isolated room in a far wing of the building when I first arrived. Brian Ellis later told me that I refused invitations to his parties. I don’t remember refusing anything but for one reason or another I was not part of the life of the department. I was aware of a whirl of social life taking place around me. People would talk in the common room about a party at someone’s house or an excursion to a pub. But these events never made contact with my life. I sat in my room and when I was not teaching or preparing to teach I read from my collection of classic novels: Thomas Mann, Dickens, Jane Austen. They were a comforting distraction.
Robert Pargetter brought me out of this social isolation. One day when I was having my lonely lunch in the student bar and a group from the department sat at a neighbouring table, Robert invited me to join them. After that I was always included. I have always been grateful to Robert – I am sure that no one else would have bothered. I regret that I was not able to go to his funeral.
If I were now a young person trying to start an academic career my chances of survival would be slim. Jobs are now hard to get, especially permanent positions and to have a hope of getting one you have to publish and get grants. Universities now impose standards on academic staff that I would have found difficult to fulfil. For a long time my research didn’t go anywhere and I did not pursue it with much energy. This was not just because of depression but because my mind was often on other things. In the end I came good. I am a professor and the member of two honorary academies. But my way of managing my career, or rather my failure to manage it according to the requirements of an increasingly bureaucratic institution, would seal my doom under present conditions. Or perhaps I would have left of my own accord and done something else with my life. Staying in academia in those days was for me the easy option.
I have written four books, not a great number for a whole academic career. The one that is mostly responsible for making my reputation, such as it is, was on historical injustice. It was inspired by a speech by John Howard, Prime Minister at the time, who refused to apologise to Aborigines for past wrongs on the grounds that present people shouldn’t have to take responsibility for the deeds of past people. Why indeed? I set out to answer this question using as my examples of historical injustice, the treatment of Native Americans and Aborigines and slavery in the United States. Of course it is widely accepted that states have historical debts and historical commitments. But I thought that the question needed a deeper answer. Why should citizens accept this burden? Are there moral as well as pragmatic reasons for this? I argued that as participants in an intergenerational society, each generation of citizens has good reasons to make commitments that future people are bound to honour and that this brings with it an obligation to make reparation for past failure to keep commitments and for other historical wrongs.
This book was one of the first systematic accounts of historical obligations. Not much had been written before – an advantage for a person who has sometimes been accused of failing to take relevant literature into account. It was well reviewed. It won an award. The rest of my books have not fared so well.
The first was inspired by the end of the Cold War. I wanted to provide a theory of international justice that took into account the philosophical literature on cosmopolitanism as well as providing a more or less practical account of how the ideal could be realised in a world where positive changes to international relations now seemed possible. It was also one of the first of its kind on a subject that had not yet received much philosophical attention. But those who later turned their attention to the subject of global justice largely ignored my book. Several years after it came out I attended an American Philosophical Association Conference that had a symposium on global justice. The opening speaker cited pioneer works in the field but made no mention of my book. For a moment I felt like drawing it to his attention. But I did not.
My second book on ethical epistemology attempted to explain why people disagree on ethical issues and how they can nevertheless reach a consensus. The last book was a kind of sequel to my writing on historical justice. I wanted to develop my account of intergenerational responsibilities in a political society into a theory of intergenerational justice that would include duties to past as well as future generations. I had trouble finding a publisher. The reviewers of Oxford University Press, the most prestigious publisher of philosophy, did not like it. Reviewers have generally not liked it. I made a vow that I will not write another book. Too much trouble for too little reward.
Somewhere I read that academics are typically malcontented – unsatisfied with their standing and prone to complaints of being undervalued. The above paragraphs may stand as evidence for that statement, though I have never eaten my heart out because of a belief that I am under-appreciated. Writing an academic work of any significance is a large undertaking. To produce a book, unless it is a superficial piece of work or unless you are enormously talented, you have to devote yourself to the task for several years. I re-wrote all of my book drafts at least six times. You invest not only your time – whatever time you can manage to salvage – but also something of yourself. Bringing a book into the world has often been compared to giving birth to a child and you have the same fond expectations for its future. David Hume complained that his first book fell still-born from the press. Many academic authors have the same impression, and not just about their first book. It comes out, often only in hard cover at cost that only libraries and really good friends are willing to afford. It is reviewed in a few places and the reviewers mostly seem to miss the mark. And nothing much is heard of it again.
Unless they are star performers or extremely lucky academics have to accept unsympathetic criticism and rejection as part of their lot. Criticism is something that philosophers quickly get used to – though it rankles if it seems unfair. Rejection or indifference is harder to bear. After my first book was published I was asked to write a chapter for a book on international justice. I sent it in, heard nothing for awhile and then was informed that the reviewer hadn’t liked it and it wouldn’t be included. I felt like I had been tipped into a deep pit. The light was very far away; I could hardly breath. Since that time I have had many rejections, my skin has hardened and I am no longer subject to nightmares of suffocation. If a journal editor informs me that they will not publish a paper of mine, then a black cloud hovers over me for the rest of the day. But by the next morning I am over it. I go on. What else can you do?
You can give it up. When I arrived at my first job in Australia up on the ninth floor of an ugly monolith named after a past prime minister, there sitting in the common room was a group of elderly men occupying their time with chess. They were old hands who had lost their interest in philosophy. They did their teaching but otherwise they were waiting around for retirement. They were pleasant company but never enthusiastic about anything. They set the tone of the place: soporific and dull. I couldn’t wait to leave.
Some academics who lose their interest in their subject go into administration. But this doesn’t suit everyone and suitable positions are probably limited. Some take early retirement as did my friend Marion. Most people go into academia because they have a consuming interest in their field and to lose this interest is to lose a preoccupation rather than just an occupation. Marion wondered for a long time what she should do with the rest of her life.
To keep going you need that spark of excitement when you encounter an interesting theory, when you have the glimmer of an idea that just might turn into something significant if you can tease it out, when you sit down to write and don’t know exactly what will come out, when working out how an argument goes wrong is an absorbing piece of work for an afternoon. If you also like teaching, or at least are not bad at it, then an academic job is a rare privilege. It is one of the few ways in which you can earn money for doing what you enjoy and also find worth doing. This is why so many young people are prepared to put up with years of dreadful conditions, temporary positions and inadequate pay for the chance of getting a tenured job.
My interest in philosophy is intellectual curiosity honed in on an activity for which my training and experience have made me competent. I could have directed my curiosity to some other subject matter but I have always had a hankering for deep questions – to find out where you get if you keep on asking ‘why’? I had a teacher in my last year of high school who encouraged this propensity. He got me interested in reading Plato. So I took some philosophy courses when I got to university, though my intention was to train as a journalist. I got stuck on it like a fly on flypaper.
The University of Minnesota had 60,000 students at the time when I began studying for my degree. Lectures were held in large halls and tutorials were done by teaching assistants who were earning money to complete their post-graduate degrees. My tutors were energetic young men (no women among them) who loved philosophy and spent their spare time arguing with each other. They took me under their wing, told me what to read and brought me along to their informal discussions. I can’t remember whether I ever dared to express an opinion but I was thrilled by the experience of listening to people who were clever and competitive but also working together to reach the best possible answer to a philosophical problem. They never found it but the fact that there was no end to the arguments was part of the attraction. They also took me to staff symposiums where the theories of the speakers (who I now know were sometimes notable figures) were subjected to the strongest criticisms that members of the audience could come up with. The competitive, hyper-critical and argumentative style of philosophy is perhaps partly responsible for the fact that the profession has few women. It is also responsible for philosophers being disliked by academics in other humanities fields. But it did not put me off. I found it exciting.
Someone once told me that philosophy was to him like a game with intricate moves and that this was what held his interest. I was taken aback. If I ever believed that philosophy was a game I would give it up. I would also give it up if I thought it was about the meaning of life. I don’t think life has a meaning. My interest in philosophy has always had a practical edge, which is why I gravitated to ethics and political philosophy after all the epistemology, logic and philosophy of language that I did in the early part of my career. I have never been much interested in metaphysics, despite the depth of the issues, because I don’t think that the metaphysics philosophers do is of use anywhere, even in science.
Philosophy was never my only interest and other preoccupations took up a lot of my time and were partly responsible for the slow, unpromising start to my academic career. One of these other interests was bushwalking. The other was politics.
From the time I was in my late teens I had leftwing political convictions. It is true that I voted for Eisenhower in the mock election in our primary school but that was because I was swayed by the widely expressed view that he would guarantee peace. My interest in politics did not come from my upbringing. My parents rarely expressed any political opinions. They said, and perhaps this was actually true, that they did not know how each other voted. Nevertheless, I knew quite a lot about my father’s unexpressed views.
My father and I are together in the car. The radio is on and a man is giving a speech. He has a distinctive voice and it is this rather than what he is saying that makes me ask who he is. ‘McCarthy’, says my father and I know from the tone of his voice that he disapproves of this person.
I stuffed envelopes for the local branch of the Democratic Party though I was too young to join. My allegiance was known and became the subject of jibes at the Faribault Daily News where I worked as a cub reporter. The editor and sub-editor were solid Republicans. When the prominent Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey came to town to address a meeting, neither wanted to attend. So I was assigned the task of reporting on his speech. I was given a camera so I could also take pictures.
Humphrey was then a member of the Senate. His career as a Vice-President and a candidate for President was still in the future. He was an old fashioned orator, a master of a style of political speaking that is now obsolete. I was predisposed to find him impressive and did. I can’t remember what he talked about. But my report on his speech and one of my pictures duly appeared in the Faribault Daily News.
My future stepmother was an admirer of Humphrey. She had been a policewoman in Minneapolis for many years and was grateful to him for his fight against corruption when he was mayor of the city. Her son Jon said that it pleased her to know that she would be buried in the same cemetery – indeed not far from where he rested.
In my first two semesters at the University of Minnesota I was staying at a hall of residence. I earned some of my keep by serving meals in the cafeteria, but mostly my father paid. It was the big city; it was summer when I arrived and I had my first and last chance to participate in student life beyond the classroom.
When I told my father that I wanted to go to the University of Minnesota he asked me if I really wanted to compete with all those smart Jewish kids. It was the only vaguely anti-Semitic comment that I ever heard him make. I thought that the smart Jewish kids would be intellectually stimulating and I was not afraid of competing with them. In that first summer I was pleased to discover that I had fallen in with some of them. The organisation I joined was a peace group but it had connections with other causes of the time: the struggle against segregation in the South and the fight against the lingering traces of McCarthyism.
It is the latter that brings us to a non-descript chamber somewhere in the city for a hearing of the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. We are there to witness the proceedings. We do not try to interrupt – that would get us thrown out and we are there partly because we are curious. The time when this organisation wielded power and destroyed lives is long over. The Committee is one of those undead organisations that persists because no one as yet has got around to disbanding it. We sit quietly in the area designated for observers, but our hostility must be evident because the chairman turns around and makes a defensive speech. We young people ought to pay attention and learn something, he says. The session, which takes not much longer than an hour, consists of people being called to the stand and being asked questions to which they always reply by taking the 5th Amendment. I am disappointed. I want defiance and drama.
At another time we are at the Minneapolis airport where the newly elected President, John F. Kennedy is touching down. It is the beginning of the Vietnam War and we are protesting against it. It is a rainy evening and we walk in a bedraggled circle holding our banners. JFK comes and then he’s gone – swept away in a limousine. It is doubtful that he notices our protest.
Everyone who was around at the time is supposed to remember where they were when Kennedy was killed. I am walking back from a class at the University. It is a warm sunny day. I feel good. Two men pass me and I catch something about the President being shot. I assume they are joking and disapprove of their sense of humour. For about a half a block I walk on and then I start running. I rush up the stairs to my room and turn on the radio.
Before the end of my first year at the University my extra-curricular life at the University of Minnesota came to an end. I was now supporting myself. I moved out of the hall of residence, which was too expensive, and into a shared household. I got a night job at the First National Bank sorting cheques and during the day I studied and went to classes. I abandoned my newly found friends in the peace movement. I had no time for politics.
The time of my youth was the time of the outbreak of radicalism and student activism that ran through the universities of America in the 60s and came to Australia in the 70s. By moving to Australia was able to participate in a movement that I had largely missed in the US.
I joined the large anti-war demonstrations in Melbourne. I became a feminist, or rather realised that I was one, and attended consciousness raising groups. I rallied in support of repealing abortion laws. But I was looking for a form of politics that was not merely protest – for a group that had a vision about what society should become and some kind of program for achieving it. And so I joined the Communist Party. At that time the Communist Party in Australia was not aligned either with the Soviet Union or China. Its ties with the USSR were cut when the Russians suppressed the Hungarian revolution. Later some members left to start a new pro-Chinese party. The remainder kept itself independent of foreign ties and dedicated itself to establishing socialism in Australia.
Though the Party adhered to a Marxist anti-capitalist program, its real power was in the trade unions and to a secondary degree in some of the protest groups that it influenced. This meant that there was a tension between the realities of Party politics and the idealist, Marxist views of younger people like me who joined it in the 70s. We formed a Left Tendency, which was viewed with great suspicion – though it was never a serious threat to the Party leadership. As an ‘intellectual’ with no real connection with the trade union movement (except for being a member of a union) I was not of much value to the Party. At the very time that I joined the Victorian Secretary of the Party had been trying to recruit an influential person at my university. He was undoubtedly disappointed that he got me instead.
There was a moment when I came face to face with our utter irrelevance of our Left Tendency. It is at a meeting on strategy and John Halfpenny, whose influence in the Party comes from his powerful position in the trade union movement, speaks for cooperation with the government on a prices and incomes policy. This is something that the Left Tendency opposes and one of us should surely voice our opposition. But no one does. The pointlessness of doing so – of opposing that powerful voice – is clear to all of us.
I was no good at recruiting and more of a hindrance than a help to party decision-making. I could give a good speech when called upon (which was not often) and my training in journalism enabled me to fulfil useful function for the Party’s weekly newspaper. I wrote articles and worked one summer as a volunteer staff member at its headquarters in Sydney.
What I got out of the Party was probably much more than the Party got out of having me as a member. Academics can lead a narrow existence interacting only with their kind. Through the Party I met people from many different backgrounds, many of them knowledgeable about things outside my experience. I acquired some good friends. I learned a lot about politics.
The Party disbanded not long after the Communist world fell apart. Its leadership went mostly into the Labor Party – as did John Halfpenny. The remainder formed a new party with the mission of organising protest groups and social movements into an effective social force for radical change. This was never going to work. People in social movements had their own goals and strategies. They were not going to accept the direction of an organisation that slotted their concerns into a wider agenda.
I used to joke that I did not leave the Party; the Party left me. I still call myself as Marxist, if only to annoy those who think that Marx is no longer relevant. In fact a lot of things Marx said still seem right to me; though quite a few of his views are clearly wrong. Most democratic socialists these days believe that capitalism is here to stay but that it has to be better managed. But if capitalism is to be managed so that it doesn’t produce enormous inequalities, unemployment, exploitation, third world poverty, unsafe workplaces and harm to the environment, then the result would probably be not much different from what Marx meant by communism.
- If you think of time as a dimension born in the Big Bang, tick-tocking its way through the birth and destruction of worlds, witnessing the coming into existence of our solar system, the slow development of life on earth and moving inexorably to a future in which the Earth will die and the universe and time itself will have a stop, you have to acknowledge the insignificance of your concerns. This thought can be comforting. It puts things in perspective.
When I was as a child I was fascinated by dinosaurs and read everything that I could find about them. This was long before Jurassic Park, before dinosaurs became a craze and before the age of dinosaur toys. I was simply wonder-struck by this world of amazing creatures making the earth their own long before humans existed. I was not only interested in dinosaurs. I read book after book about the evolution of life – the amphibians that climbed out of the sea as immigrants to a terra nullius – and then age of reptiles culminating in gigantic herbivores and terrifying predators. After them came the large cats, gigantic kangaroos and woolly mammoths that intersected with homo sapiens and possibly met their fate because of us. But like many children I was especially fond of dinosaurs – they were so grandiose, so different from creatures we know and they walked the land, swam through the seas and glided through the air with such confidence in their right to dominate the earth.
My interest was not really scientific. I did not have the makings of a paleontologist. Once we visited the household of a scientist, who had been the friend of my father in college. His son, I discovered, was also interested in dinosaurs but he soon became scornful about my lack of systematic knowledge. I was putting together dinosaurs that lived in geological periods millions of years apart.
Somewhere along the ribbon of time I am in the children’s section of the Buckingham Memorial Library in my hometown of Faribault Minnesota. The library is in a stately neo-classical building that was constructed in the Great Depression by Roosevelt’s WPA, as was the viaduct that spans the river, connecting the two parts of our town. As usual I am looking for books about the evolution of life on earth. It occurs to me as I page through one of these books that I have to make a decision. Our mother has been sending us to a Bible class where we are taught that God created the world, its creatures and humans in a matter of days. If that is true then my favourite books are wrong and it would be sinful to read them. I take a breath. There is no real contest. In the blink of an eye I become an atheist.
Of course I knew, even at that time, that you could be a Christian and believe in God without denying that creatures roamed the earth millions of years ago. But after exploring the further reaches of time – the billions of years when there was no life on earth and the great amount of time before humans appeared I was not inclined to believe in a God who had a special interests in humans and answered their prayers. Later I learned that you can have a conception of God as the Unmoved Mover or as the First Cause. I can’t be sure that such a being does not exist but if it does it is not the sort of thing that can be, or should be, an object of worship.
When I stopped believing in God and the biblical story of creation I did not stop going to church with my parents and my sister. I did not dare to face my father’s anger or my mother’s pleas. Both my parents were serious about their religion – though they were not fundamentalists and don’t know why my sister and I were sent to a Bible class where we were told that the earth was created in seven days and that the Apocalypse was on its way. The latter teaching caused me concern in the days before I lost my faith. I did not want the world to end but knew that this desire was sinful – a good indication that I was not going to be one of the chosen who would be taken up into heaven.
My mother was a Lutheran but my father who grew up in the Baptist tradition of mid-America thought that the Lutheran church was too ritualistic. They settled on a small congregation called the Evangelical and United Brethren, mostly because they liked the minister. So almost every Sunday we drove down the hill dressed in our Sunday clothes to a white weatherboard church next door to a much larger Catholic cathedral. Jane and I had an hour of Sunday school in the basement and then ascended for the main service.
I sit with my family on a hard pew and pass the time as best I can. I make up stories. I stare into the eyes of the fox on the fur that drapes around the shoulder of the woman in front of me. I am relieved when the cadence of the preacher’s voice changes and the Benediction is about to begin.
But I liked some of the hymns. Sometimes I sing the ones I remember when I am coasting down a long hill on my bicycle.
We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree.
Then wither and perish but naught changes thee.
Sunday is a difficult day. When we get home from church we eat a roast that has been in the oven too long. I am sometimes called on to make devilled eggs. I don’t really like devilled eggs but it has somehow been decided that making them is something I can do. We are not allowed to go outside our yard or to contact our friends. My sister and I always manage to find something to do but the existence of this rule casts a dreary pall on the rest of the day. The afternoon seems interminable – and by mid-afternoon every activity is flat and unprofitable. Finally we are called into supper and life picks up. Supper is leftovers but it is much more enjoyable than Sunday dinner. And afterwards we are allowed to listen to dramas and comedies on the radio. Later a television set takes its place.
After my mother died I refused to attend church and by that time I was old enough to get my way. My father later told me that he could not bear to admit to the congregation that I had left for good and continued to pay my church dues. By then I was a militant atheist and if Hitchens or Dawkins had been writing at this time I would have been a fan, as I was the fan of Bertrand Russell who wrote Why I am not a Christian. But now I have no quarrel with people whose religion is central to their lives. There are far worse things to complain about. My Manchester friend Kee Kok thinks that there ought to be a space for people who just don’t care about religious matters. I belong there.
- According to my former colleague, John Bigelow, time exists only in the present. The past has ceased to be and the future is not yet in existence. The dead and your past experiences are not hanging around in another temporal location. They may remain for awhile in your memory and perhaps evidence of their former existence can be found in traces that time has left behind. But the experiences themselves, the events of your life, the people you knew have fallen into the abyss of non-being.
The thought that you live, die and are annihilated by passage of time as if you had never existed is discomforting. One of the characters in Sartre’s play, Huis Closexperiences this annihilation, this second death, when his acquaintances on earth no longer talk or think about him.
Human societies put a significant amount of effort into staving off temporal annihilation. People in pre-literate society train their memories so that they can recite geneologies and the deeds of long dead ancestors. Writing enables records to be kept but a lot about most human lives has never been recorded. Now that so much of people’s lives and thoughts are recorded by cameras or by internet sites, annihilation by time, though inevitable, is a more distant prospect. People can leave a record of themselves that will exist so long as digital memory persists, though there may be no one in the future who cares to examine it – or even no one in the future at all.
But most of my life was lived before the digital age, unrecorded by Facebook or U-Tube. I appear in a few photographs, my cousins probably remember some of our early encounters. But I am long separated from the people I grew up with. To my friends I have said little about my past. I have left important things out and sometimes I have lied. I am not altogether sure why I am writing this account of my life and times. But one possible motivation is to leave behind something of myself.
John’s concept of time may be discomforting but it leaves room for freedom. The future is not spread out before us waiting for us to experience it. It is yet to come into being. And so it seems possible that a decision, a gesture, a word, a moment of hesitation – anything at all – can change the way the future will go.
When I was a child I was puzzled about the inexplicability of my existence as the person I was. Why, I wondered, am I me rather than someone else? I could just as well have wondered why I existed at all. The existence of any person is the contingent outcome of a long series of events any one of which could have failed to occur. My existence was contingent on two people from different parts of United States getting jobs in the same city, meeting and marrying.
My mother, Marion, came from a farm near Redwing, Minnesota. Her grandparents were immigrants from southern Sweden. Having arrived in their new country, they hired an ox and cart in Ohio and made their way to Minnesota where people they knew had settled. They prospered. My great-grandfather was able to give each of his sons a farm. My Swedish relatives clustered together with others of their kind and married members of their community. At family gatherings in the village of Vasa, Swedish was the language of the older people. My mother said that she spoke Swedish until she went to school where she found to her dismay that she couldn’t understand what people were saying. To please the elders, she taught us the Lord’s Prayer in Swedish. But that was all we learned of the language of those ancestors.
My mother was the second youngest of a large family. Her father did not see any use in a woman getting a higher education, but with the help of her older sister Inez and the money earned from teaching in country schools she went to the University of Minnesota. She was popular, a good student and she was adventurous. She accompanied Inez on a car trip to the national parks of the west. She went on a 1500 mile cycle trip in Quebec, carrying a sleeping bag and staying at youth hostels. At the University she had a boyfriend and perhaps expected to marry him. But something happened to end that relationship and when she arrived in Faribault to take a job as a kindergarten teacher she was 27 and still single.
My father, Lawrence, grew up on a farm in southern Iowa near Muscatine. My grandmother told us that our ancestors were English, Welsh and Scottish; according to other relatives they were Scots-Irish. Wherever they came from they had been in the US for many generations. My great great grandfather fought on the Union side in the Civil War and my sister has a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln commending him for his service.
My father was also the second youngest, the first boy in a family of girls until his brother Leon came along. He had polio when young and attributes his almost total recovery to the care of his mother who spent hours by his bed messaging his limbs. But perhaps because of this illness he never cared for farm work and left his younger brother to take over the farm. He worked on the roads to save enough money to go to college and got a degree that qualified him to teach mathematics. His first job was in a high school in Faribault.
My parents met and married. There is a wedding picture of them in the collection of documents that I inherited from my aunt Inez. They are holding hands, standing close together and both look happy. I was born less than a year later near the end of 1942.
- In the last volume of Remembrance of Time Past, Proust’s narrator Marcel comes back to his old social circle in Paris after many years away. At first it seems to him that the people he encounters have put on a disguise. They don’t look like themselves. Their features have altered, often, although not always, for the worse. Time has marked these people, and eventually he has to acknowledge, that time has also marked him.
Living so far away from my family and the people I grew up with ensures that my visits are encounters with changes brought by time. My nephew Stephen, first appeared to me as a baby in a crib, then he metamorphosed into a schoolboy, then a high school student interested in sport and then into father of two children. His son, learning how to ride his first bicycle, appeared to me next as a teenager and then as a young adult.
I have never been to a high school reunion. But when I visited my stepbrother and his wife near Minneapolis about 7 years ago I drove down to Faribault for a class luncheon. Many of the people I went to school with live close to where they grew up and they get together every month – often at a restaurant overlooking the lake where many years ago we took swimming lessons.
When I entered I came face to face with a group of bald and white-haired men standing by the bar. They were tall, as they have always been – I remember having to crane my neck to talk to them – but their girths had now expanded. They took up a lot of space. They looked very much alike to me and I didn’t recognise anyone except the organiser of the luncheon, who I had met not so long ago in Minneapolis. But they were good-natured in the way of mid-westerners. They greeted me, introduced themselves and handed me a beer. The women were sitting at the tables inside the main room of the café. They were well dressed; they had taken care of themselves better than the men. But in this group of women who looked like the friends of my mother I had difficulty finding a familiar face. I was in a room of strangers. And then one of them offered me a place beside her and so I began the process of re-acquainting myself with my classmates. I invited them to visit me in Australia. I knew that they wouldn’t come.
The fact is that I never knew these people well. I was always on the edge of social life at Faribault High. I didn’t go to the proms. I rarely went out with boys and I never wore someone else’s class ring – a sign of ‘going steady’. Sometimes I operated the popcorn machine at school football and basketball games but I was rarely a spectator of the games that were central to the social life of the school.
I was not unhappy at high school. I was simply biding my time. I expected to leave Faribault as soon as I could and to begin a life that was much more to my liking. It is likely that the arrogance that went with this intention helped to make me unpopular.
Nevertheless I had friends. Carol and I were born on the same day in the same hospital and we were close companions for many years. As teenagers we sunbaked together on the lawn of her family’s lake cottage, listening to the Top Forty on the radio, going for an occasional swim and taking turns waterskiing behind her father’s boat. When we became 15 we both got our learner’s license and took the driver’s test on the same day. We both failed, but that was expected. Hardly anyone passed the first time. We practiced for a few months, retook the test and became licensed drivers.
Carol and I are almost 17. We are in the house of Sue, the daughter of the publisher of the Faribault Daily News, sitting on her bed paging through copies of Vanity Fair. Carol and Sue have been experimenting with hairstyles. I am not at all interested in styling my hair or the fashions in Vanity Fair. Pretending that I have any interest in these things is almost more than I can manage. I foresee that my friendship with Carol is coming to an end.
Carol was not at the class luncheon in the café by the lake. She did not supply any information for the booklet produced for the 50th anniversary of our graduating class. I have not seen her since I left Faribault over 50 years ago.
Time also leaves its mark on places, though in ways less easy to predict. After the luncheon I had a walk around the town of my childhood for the first time in over 30 years. The main street had not changed all that much in appearance. Gone was the old Olympia Café where we used to drink sodas and play the juke box. Gone was the pool hall where the bad boys used to go. Down by the river the old railway station, where trains still stopped in my time, had been turned into a café.
Dwight Eisenhower, when he was a candidate for president, turned up at that station on a whistle-stop tour through the Midwest. We children were marched down from school to hear him address the townspeople from the back of a railway carriage. We soon got bored with his speech about corruption in Washington and began to fidget. A man waving a small American flag glared at us and told us to be quiet.
My walk took me along the Cannon River on a bicycle path – also laid down since my day – to a park where our family used to go for picnics and where I used to hunt for turtles. The Australia I had left was parched and brown – suffering from many years of draught – and I could not look long enough at the wonder of the grass in that park – so green and so thick. I felt like rolling in it. I walked on, passing the county fair buildings and the stable where I once fed and watered horses.
Reaching the end of the park I climbed onto the railway line that I had used as a walking route to the stables and I was soon in the residential part of the town. Without having planned any particular route I suddenly found myself in front of our old church. There were the steps we climbed to attend the services. There was the neighbouring Catholic Church and there stood the minister’s house. But the sign for the service was in Spanish. The Evangelical United Brethren had vanished without trace.
- What Marcel becomes acutely aware of when he encounters his old acquaintances is that time had not only marked them. It had made them old. And it had made him old too.
I am old. For many years I had to accustom myself to being middle aged. Now I have to accustom myself to being an old woman. My parents were dead long before they reached my age. Being old is not something you notice from the inside. It hits you when you look in the mirror. When I look at my reflection I see that my dark brown hair has become white. My forehead is lined; my neck is wrinkled. My eyes that were once remarked on for their brilliant blue colour have become dull. The flesh around my face droops.
After checking my blood pressure and doing other tests, an attendant at the gym I go to told me that I have the body of a 57 year old. But I am not fooled. My body knows its age. I have old injuries that bother me more and more with the passing years. My hearing is deteriorating. My balance and reaction time is not nearly so good as it was when I was really 57.
I am old. As you age you have to expect mental deterioration. Old people joke about forgetting familiar names or having to struggle to extract from the brain long remembered facts. I also suffer from this annoyance but it doesn’t bother so much as the thought that I might be losing my ability to reason or to think creatively without realising that these abilities are disappearing. There are things that I should perhaps take as signs: complaints from reviewers that my ideas are not original, my badly reviewed last book. Have I lost the ability to do original work or have these critics simply missed the point (as I prefer to think)?
I have not lost confidence in myself and so I continue to write academic papers. But I have prudently decided to take up a new occupation: writing short pieces on ethics and politics and reviews of books for online journals, magazines and occasionally the Age. I call this philosophical journalism. It requires an ability to write in an engaging and accessible way – which I acquired in my short career as a journalist – and knowledge of the issues, which I get from a background in philosophy supplemented by research on the internet.
I can keep this up for awhile. And I can keep up my cycling and walking. But I know that sooner or later something will happen. Maybe it will be sudden death. Or maybe it will be a debilitating illness, an accident that separates me abruptly from my active life, or perhaps a slower decent into decrepitude and senility.
From time to time you read the obituary of a famous person who has died at an old age and it takes you by surprise. It has been so long since you heard of him that you assumed he was dead. And then you wonder what he was doing all those years after he stopped writing his books, or acting in movies or singing or making public speeches. Was he senile? Was he languishing somewhere, bored and unhappy? Did he regret his inability to do what for so long occupied his mind and gave his life significance? Or was he perfectly content in the smaller life that he was forced to lead? Right now I find it difficult to imagine how I would live a life that contains few of the things that I now enjoy. The ‘something that will happen’, if it is not sudden death, will teach me.
At least once a month I take the car and drive to Malvern where Mary lives in residential care. When I ask Mary how old she is she doesn’t give me a clear answer – not, I think, because she is reluctant to reveal her age – but because this is one of the things she has lost track of. She grew up during the Depression so I estimate that she is 90 or thereabouts. Mary used to teach philosophy at Melbourne University and her husband John was at La Trobe. Long ago when I wanted to write a paper on aesthetics of nature I got help from Mary whose main expertise was aesthetics.
At first I rode my bike up to Mary’s residence but then I realised that she wanted fresh air and a change of scene. So now I take the car and we go to a local café.
I come after lunch. Mary is almost never in her room but she is often parked with her walking frame in one of the common rooms. When I was young our church choir used to visit old people’s homes at Christmas. These places always had an unpleasant smell and the residents sat around in chairs hardly responding to our presence. It was as if they had been parked there for the day, semi-conscious and left to rot. Mary’s place is not like that. It doesn’t smell. People are not sitting around with vacant expressions on their faces. There are activities. I’ve seen a list of them in Mary’s room. It has pleasant public spaces where people can read or watch television – though I have rarely seen anyone in them aside from Mary. There is a courtyard where people can sit outside – though it is paved with concrete (probably more practical for walking frames).
When I find Mary and when she has finished changing into something appropriate for outdoors – a process that can take some time – we go out. She has a bad case of arthritis; her legs are bent and unsteady. She moves slowly but persistently toward my car. It is a struggle for her to get in but she manages and I put her walker in the back. She always says, ‘It’s so nice to get out.’
We do not go far. Down the hill there is a café where I can almost always get a parking place nearby. If there is no place to park or if it is closed I have to go further down Malvern Road and hope to get a place to park near the next café in the strip. The inside of our customary cafe is bright and cheerful. Cakes line the counter; the waitresses are friendly. Mary and I make our way slowly to the courtyard open to the sky and flanked by the kitchen on one side and a wall of ivy on the other. Mary always remarks on how well they have decorated this space. She likes plants.
We order long blacks. Mary does not have Alzheimer’s but her short term memory is deficient and therefore conversation with her almost always takes the same course and goes around in circles. She talks of her childhood in Echuca, her aunt who had a knack for catching fish, her father who was always on the move. I have heard her stories many times before and will hear them again before we depart. Sometimes if I ask the right question I might learn something different – she might say something that she has not said before. But that happens rarely and less and less. Mostly my questions have little impact. I don’t mind. The good thing about taking Mary out is that she enjoys it so much. She has an impish grin – the smile of a child who is thinking of doing something naughty.
Somewhere in the course of our conversation she always says, ‘It’s so good of you to come’, and she sounds puzzled, as if she can’t understand it. Of course I have my reasons. Mary and John were good to me once when I was very ill. I tried once to explain this but her face was blank. She has no memory of the dinner at University House that she organised for me; no memory of the help she gave me on the aesthetics paper. But gratitude is not my only motivation. Mary has no family and no friends living. Her former colleagues are mostly too busy with their own concerns to think of her. But since I have thought of her why should I not spend a bit of time now and then taking her out for coffee? Some of the best things that were ever done for me were done out of kindness.
Maybe I am also doing a bit of magical thinking. Maybe deep down in some primitive part of my mind I am thinking that if I do something for Mary someone will later do something for me. For I also have no family connections – at least none that will help me. I will need someone to take me out for coffee.
- For those of us whose early lives are largely unrecorded, memory is our connection to the past. Marcel’s memory was stimulated by eating a cake reminiscent of childhood and once awakened it flowed forth in detailed profusion. I have never believed in the power of the madeleine. Like Proust my memory has often been awakened by an incidental reminder of times past. But the recollection that comes forth is rather like a scene lit up briefly by lightning. Its connection to other events is obscure and the details I see are often vague and possibly mistaken in some respects.
Psychologists tell us that it is fairly easy to implant false memories in a person’s mind. They also tell us that memories are not like items in filing cabinet that can be relied on to stay they same when they are not being consulted. Memories can alter without our being aware that this is happening. Memories of childhood are especially unreliable. I am writing nothing that I know to be a falsehood or a misrepresentation but this doesn’t mean that everything I say is true.
In my first childhood memory I am walking down a path near the house in Northfield where my father was stationed during the War. There are tall bushes on both sides rearing up over my head and I am worried about the big dog that frightened me on this path once before. Did this walk actually happen? I am more willing to believe in my fear of the dog than the reality of the path and the bushes.
My earliest Faribault memories are better defined and this makes them more believable. Many of them are about crime and punishment. We are living in an upstairs flat of a big house. It is summer and I throw something – perhaps a stool – out of the open bedroom window and watch it fall. It makes a satisfying thump as it hits the ground and so I pick up other objects – books, pillows, toys, whatever I can lift – and throw them out too. I am having such fun but eventually the game is over and I turn to other occupations. Lunchtime arrives and my father appears at the top of the stairs with his arm full of books, pillows and the other objects that I tossed out the window. I see the look on his face and I know I am going to be punished. I don’t remember the punishment, which I surely received. I just remember his glare and my anticipation of a spanking.
Another punishment I do remember. I am in the garage of the house with some of the older kids of the neighbourhood. They say things that interest me and when I get home I repeat them in front of my mother. She screams at me never to say such things again and gives me a paddling. I cry, not so much because she hurts me but because I don’t know what I did wrong.
We were living in this upstairs flat when my sister arrived. My mother was now occupied in bathing and changing her. I don’t remember being jealous but I was curious. When I touched little Jane’s palm with my finger, she would grab it with her fist. But this was just about all she could do, and I lost interest in her until she was able to crawl. I had been walking for some time but I joined her on the floor to keep her company.
We moved to the house my parents bought on the south side of town. I was four years old and now I can page through a sequence of reasonably reliable memories from my first days in kindergarten to the years in primary and secondary school. There were family holidays, summers at the playground, the jobs that I had when I was older and so on. Memories of an ordinary, not very eventful, childhood.
What is most interesting about early childhood memories are not usually the events in them but the experience of finding yourself in a world of bigger people who are sometimes frightening and unpredictable and often incomprehensible. The adults want you to do things that don’t make much sense. They say things that are impossible to understand. The bigger kids play games that are enormously attractive but dangerous. I remember hanging onto a bar as the older kids got a rotating piece of playground equipment to go faster and faster. My feet flew up in the air as the ground swung round beneath me. I hung on for my life.
My memory does not always agree with my sister’s. We often find ourselves in disagreements over the meaning of an event and sometimes even about what actually happened. Jane is always sure that she is right and most likely she is. She was probably paying more attention. I was more likely to be dwelling in the world of my imagination or impatiently waiting for a conversation to end or a visit to be over.
It seems to me now that my ambient attitude during childhood was one of impatience – an outlook similar to that of someone forced to attend an event when she would prefer to be elsewhere. It was as if I did not like being where I found myself; but there I was and I had to put up with it. I waited impatiently for the time when I would be grown up and could live my life as I pleased and meanwhile I sulked and grudgingly participated in the life I was forced to endure, that of a dependent child.
This view of myself as a child suits the preferred narrative of my life. But narratives are another way of introducing falsehood into memory. I can certainly remember my sulks and my stubborn determination not to do what my parents wanted. Perhaps I was sometimes a difficult child. But I was also often happy and thoroughly engaged – probably most of the time – in the activities of childhood. I had plans, and secret schemes that occupied my thoughts. I joyfully anticipated the freedom of the summer holidays, the content of Christmas stockings, the celebration of birthdays, fairs, picnics, going to baseball games with my father, catching bullheads in the river, tobogganing with my friends, playing in autumn leaves. To construct an alienated or even a discontented childhood out of the events of my early life would be a serious distortion of reality.
I also have a picture of myself as a non-conformist who coolly ignored the opinion of others and did what she pleased. In one of Alice Munro’s stories about girlhood in a town not unlike mine at a time not much earlier, the narrator says that girls were not supposed to ride bicycles after the age of puberty. Perhaps this was also an unwritten rule in my town. After awhile I noticed that I was the only girl still riding a bike. But I didn’t care. I kept on doing it.
I was a tomboy and happy to be so called. I played with boys until they stopped wanting me in their company and then I played mostly by myself. I don’t remember being bullied in school and I had an idea of myself as a tough, no nonsense person who was capable of defending herself by blows if necessary.
And yet I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be thought well of, particularly by my father who was not demonstrative in his affections. If he criticised me, which he often did, I would burst into tears. This disgusted him and these scenes were made worse by the fact that I was furious at myself for being a cry baby – so much at odds with the kind of person that I wanted to be. But I couldn’t help the tears.
- I asked my physicist friend, Alan, what scientists now believe about the nature of time and braced myself for an answer that I would not understand. I gathered from his reply that scientists are not agreed on this matter but some think that the peculiar nature of time – its direction – is related to another physical process that has a direction: namely entropy. As entropy increases and the universe winds down, time will also come to an end.
In a Humanities course at the University of Minnesota I read some essays by Lincoln Steffens an early 20th century writer who was much troubled by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The idea that the universe would not go on forever, that organised physical processes would cease, gave him the existential willies. To me it seemed that he was extremely privileged to have such a non-life threatening existential worry. The immediate threat to life and civilisation in those days in the early 60s was nuclear war. As the Cold War intensified the University put up signs meant to direct us to shelters in the event of a nuclear strike. If Minneapolis had been struck by a nuclear warhead those shelters would not have saved us; nor would they have protected us from winds bearing radioactive poisons. I said this in a letter I wrote for the student newspaper. But officials like to pretend that they can do something.
One day during the Cuban missile crisis I was sitting in a classroom when I heard an alarm go off. ‘This is it’, I told myself but realised a moment later that it was only a fire alarm in a nearby building. We were all on edge at that time, though the threat of nuclear war was not something we often talked about.
But Steffens had a point. Life is an ultimately futile struggle to impose order on a small segment of the universe. We know that we are not only doomed to decay and die but that our society, the world as we know it, will also have an end. The earth will become a cold lifeless ball of rock, our sun will implode and die. The heat death of the universe merely adds another layer to this story of decay, disintegration and death. It is not true that death will always be balanced by the coming into existence of new life or that creation will always make up for what is destroyed. This is a hard lesson to accept for those who believe that progress, or at least sustainability, is built into the nature of things.
But none of this has ever bothered me very much. There is no God to whom something must be proved. We are free to get what we can out of this strange condition called life – perhaps a rare occurrence in the universe – and it is remarkable how ingeniously we can go about it. Until the ‘something that will happen’ happens, curiosity, enjoyment of life, everyday pleasures, my work and my other activities are more than enough of a meaning of life for me.